HANDY Not So Dandy: NASA-Funded Mathematical Model Of Doom

I'd pound Equality into the heads of my enemies.
I’d pound Equality into the heads of my enemies.
Mathematically minded

Remember back in the 1990s when otherwise intelligent people would look to the scientific literature and say, “Those guys must be right. They used a computer model.”

A computer! How could they be wrong?

Yet once computers became ubiquitous, once they turned into mere “lifestyle” statements, once we started carrying the things everywhere in our pockets, this kind of talk died out. Results were no longer deemed extra-special-shiny just because they were formed inside a computer. Traditional notions of evidentiary goodness reasserted themselves, including the knowledge that computers only do what they’re told.

But when a result is based on a mathematical model—well! Just look at all those equations! Colorful graphs, too! We look at a paper written by mathematicians and think, “Anybody smart enough to go on and on about “dimensionless parameters” and “optimal depletion factors” must know what they’re talking about.” Right?

No, of course not.

All you need to understand about mathematical modeling is this: equations can be as error-free as Aristotelian syllogisms; nary a decimal out of place, but that does not imply that the use to which the equations are put is valid, or even sensible. Applying math to real life is not a mathematical operation, but a human act of interpretation.

For example, here is a perfectly respectable equation: y = x. We fill in numbers on the right-hand side and “solve” for numbers on the left-hand side. Simple. But what if I were to tell you—and recall I have a PhD in the subject from an Ivy League university—that “x” stands for Inequality and “y” for Distress, one an intolerably fuzzy notion and the other a raw emotion, and both scarcely measurable quantities. Would you be satisfied if I insisted that my mathematical model proved that distress causes inequality?

You might, if you had a stake in a political ideology which insisted on the relationship. And then you might not if you realized that quantifying such complex intricate inchoate ideas into two arbitrary numbers was next to impossible.

Does anybody create these kinds of model? Do they offer trivial equations with unquantifiable entities which purport to demonstrate, say, how entire civilizations might collapse?

Yes, of course.

X = The end of the world

NASA in its wisdom, through the grant “NNX12AD03A”, which it now publicly regrets issuing, funded the study, “Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY): Modeling Inequality and Use of Resources in the Collapse or Sustainability of Societies” by Safa Motesharrei, Jorge Rivas, and Eugenia Kalnay, which will appear in the journal Ecological Economics.

The authors note that Rome is no longer with us, neither the Han Dynasty (though many Chinese might dispute this). And since these, and other civil societies such as the Aztec Empire, Carthage, East Germany, the Yugoslavia and many more, disappeared because of some cause, it makes sense to look for this cause.

Scholars are divided on why Rome collapsed, but a not unpopular answer is decadence coupled with an over-extended military, the rise of Christianity, and one or two other matters. Few would say a lack of food. Carthage had the bad habit of killing her newborns (good thing we don’t do this). The Aztec Empire let its population age a while before large numbers of them were sacrificed. (It was only later that science realized wholesale slaughter of one’s residents tends to cause demographic decline.)

Anyway, the authors note that “cultural decline and social decadence, popular uprisings, and civil wars” can cause or contribute to societal collapse. But none of these have to do with the environment, our modern obsession. So the authors ignored all possible causes except the environmental in “a simple model, not intended to describe actual individual cases, but rather to provide a general framework that allows carrying out ‘thought experiments’ for the phenomenon of collapse and to test changes that would avoid it.” They call this curiosity the “Human And Nature DYnamics (HANDY)” model.

It’s based on standard predator-prey models which work like this: a population of wolves eat the locally available deer, whose population necessarily declines, perhaps to the point where some wolves starve, decreasing their population; the concomitant reduced predation allows the deer to rebound, which gives the opportunity for more hot dinners for the wolves, which begins the cycle anew.

Human wolves

HANDY swaps the wolves for human beings and the deer for “Nature.” Just how people prey on Nature is not too clear, especially since people are part of Nature. This difficulty is ignored. HANDY introduces a twist which allows mankind to accumulate Nature for future use, a surplus which the model calls “wealth”. This would be like the wolves discovering how to make and store venison jerky.

About that wealth: “Empirically, however, this accumulated surplus is not evenly distributed throughout society, but rather has been controlled by an elite. The mass of the population, while producing the wealth, is only allocated a small portion of it by elites, usually at or just above subsistence levels.” Some wolves are more equal than other wolves.

Some humans do eat less than others, but this is a culture-relative measure. For instance, “poor” people (what the authors call “Commoners”) in the USA have much higher obesity rates than the “rich” (“Elites”). In medicine-speak, being a Commoner is a “risk factor” for obesity. What do the authors say to this clear objection?

The meaning of life. Says the model.
The meaning of life. Says the model.
They say this, the HANDY model. The claim is that culture’s fortunes are folded into these four simple equations.

The dots over the letters mean the thing represented by the letter changes over time. The names are: xC = the number of Commoners, xE = the number of Elites, y = the amount of Natural Resources, and w = Wealth. The latter two are expressed in units of “eco-Dollars”, a fictional entity which isn’t well described and doesn’t appear to map to any real thing.

The C’s are functions of w, xC, and xE, and the various Greek letters on the right-hand side allow the model to be tuned to give results the authors hope to see. Being able to put numbers to all these unquantifiable entities is what makes it Science.


The authors fiddled with the parameters to tell three stories: (1) The first of an Egalitarian society, one with no Elites, and therefore necessarily meeting the goal of Equality (where all have the same number of “eco-Dollars”); (2) An Equitable society, one with Elites, but where all are Equal; (3) An Unequal society, one with Elites and Commoners and imperfect Equality (where Elites have more “eco-Dollars” than Commoners).

Now without knowing the solution to the equations (which are easy to come by), and not knowing the values of all the tweakable parameters, just you take a guess which of these three scenarios reached Sustainability and which led to inevitable Collapses.


Under the Unequal society “collapse is difficult to avoid”, because why? Because “Elites eventually consume too much, resulting in a famine among Commoners that eventually causes the collapse of society.” But notice the confusion: eco-Dollars have somehow been transformed into food. But man does not live on bread alone. He also needs energy and shelter. So if eco-dollars are proxies for food, then where in the model are these other necessary quantities?

Particularly absent is the idea that only in a society which admits Elites can there be technological progress (what else is a writer of scientific papers but an Elite?). Consider how much food production has swelled over the last century as the discoveries made by Elites are implemented to the benefit of Commoners. Nature, in this sense, is not static as the model assumes.

But as already noted, in Western culture the opposite of the HANDY model has been observed. Elites, skipping over the precise meaning of “eco-dollars”, eat fewer calories than Commoners. They breed less, too. Having access to more Nature strangely means less food consumption and fewer humans. Think of Japan.

And in non-Western cultures, many of which are more Egalitarian relative to the West, there are good arguments that the meddling of Western Elites is what causes some famines, many of which are artificial owing to local (and global) politics.

Yet there is no notion of politics, and no mechanisms for the more important senses of cultural change (such as population-reducing war, disease, abortion and contraception use) in HANDY, and no idea that, as happens in reality, Commoners become Elites and vice versa. There is no real-life strict dichotomy between an Elite and Commoner. And new forms of wealth and ways of increasing Nature’s bounty are often unanticipated.

The HANDY model says Unequal societies must collapse. But which societies, say over the last century, in reality gave up their ghosts? We must ignore those that collapsed because of war (such as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Cambodia) or politics (e.g. Rhodesia, Czechoslovakia) because HANDY is silent on these important subjects. The remaining collapsees were those societies which were Egalitarian (e.g. the Soviet Union, Cambodia again?). And how many collapsed solely because of the non-Egalitarian use of “eco-Dollars”? It’s hard to make a case that any did. Ireland is still with us. There were large famines in, say, Uganda, but the culture is still extant and the famines were in large part caused by war.

I don’t mean this to be a complete history, but as in our “y = x” model, saying the symbols mimic real life does not make it so, especially when the model makes predictions opposite to reality. HANDY has no applicability to human cultural change. But it’s a matter of interest to see who is most anxious to believe the model.


The authors, whose faith in their model is strong, are ready with their political suggestions, which include recommending “major reductions in inequality and population growth rates”. The Guardian eagerly agrees and says “The NASA-funded HANDY model offers a highly credible wake-up call to governments, corporations and business—and consumers—to recognise that ‘business as usual’ cannot be sustained, and that policy and structural changes are required immediately.”

Once again, the triumph of theory over reality.

Update Ivy League Statistician Debunks NASA-Funded ‘Socialism or Extinction’ Study


  1. I like this take on Rome and the modern world. I bet this wasn’t included either.


    “Some humans do eat less than others …”. Briggs, you have fallen victim to your own y = x mathematical equation, that is you have assumed that overeating causes obesity. Of course, an adequate food supply will prevent starvation levels of thinness except for the anorexic who have been, in part, seduced by the same equation.

    This study seems part of the “the answer is socialism, what was the question again?” brigade. Also I assume that the dots represent Newton’s notation for a time derivative, which is not quite what you said.

  2. Evidently these people have not heard of computer software verification and validation. It’s like the climate modelers who, when confronted with empirical evidence that there has been no warming, claim the evidence is wrong.

  3. “The mass of the population, while producing the wealth, is only allocated a small portion of it by elites, usually at or just above subsistence levels.”

    This is so thoroughly wrong that it truly defies belief any mature adult could make such a statement.

  4. Ariel: You ever heard of the Masada? For two years, 900 Jews held their own against 15,000 Roman soldiers. They chose death before enslavement. The Romans? Where are they now?
    Tony Soprano: You’re looking at them, a**hole.

    “The Sopranos: Denial, Anger, Acceptance (#1.3)” (1999)

  5. The modelers fail to include a most important parameter in their equations — sinfulness (a/k/a “human nature”). Ignore it at your peril. They also fail to understand that dispersion is an inherent characteristic of all populations. Trying to “correct” it is impossible. My money is on reality, not theory.

  6. You are quite right Jim S, it takes a certain willful blindness to make such claims. By the way Briggs your spam filter has struck again. I have crossed a line or something.

  7. Highly credible science?

    Science is dead. It’s a joke now. Scientist = clown. Look at all of you trying to “fix” the model.

    Welcome back to the Dark Ages. When the genocidal model whisperers turn off your power and food supply, you’ll understand what “collapse” really means.

  8. Uhuh..

    The real issue with HANDY isn’t that it’s internally absurd or even that its authors view everything through pink political filters, it’s that real people -including you- are forced, largely by the ignorance and animus of the mainstream media, to respond to it.

  9. What in God’s name is NASA doing funding this sort of socio-economic study? Will the State and Treasury Depts. be sending the next rockets to Mars?

  10. The mass of the population, while producing the wealth, is only allocated a small portion of it by elites, usually at or just above subsistence levels.

    So the solution is socialism? But the notion of a central elite “allocating” resources to the commons just is socialism already.

  11. Paul Murphy,

    Well, now that I think about it, the State department is in charge of our foreign relations, so they should be the ones to be sending rockets to places outside of US jurisdiction. If only we could convince them to handle the first no-return trip manned mission to Mars by simply building a rocket around Washington DC.

  12. Ron Paul is a voice crying in the wilderness and no one listens.

    And I heard a voice from among The Beasts, which said, “A two-quart measure of wheat for a denarius and three two-quart measures of barley for a denarius, and you shall not harm the wine and the oil.” Rev 6:6

  13. I remember my surprise and delight when I discovered that something like “Mount Everest is 8,850 metres high” is a mathematical model. Of course you have to write something like “H_e = 8850” for the full effect. And while it looks simple it’s just as problematical as that monstrosity in the post. So much so that China and Nepal were in dispute about it (China says 8848m). Mathematicians and artist often talk about the beauty of their models and frequently fall in love with them. Maybe maths is more art than science?

  14. Professor Briggs,

    There’s no “standard predator-prey models” aspects in the displayed equations. None.

    Note that Xc and Xe are independent of all other aspects of the modeling, and independent of each other. Given the numerical values of the Alpha and Beta parameters, the fate of the Xcs and Xes are pre-determined. They are either exponentially increasing or exponentially decreasing functions of time, alone, depending on the magnitudes of the Alphas and Betas.

    Note, too that y, the amount of Natural Resources, does not depend on Xe and w. Apparently, Elites, who are almost always denoted to be the cause of depletion of Natural Resources have no effect on the trajectory of the Natural Resources in this model. Additionally, the amount of Natural Resources is also independent of the Wealth of the culture of interest, again counter to all the usual arguments.

    If BetaC is greater than AlphaC then Xc is exponentially increasing with time, and that’s certain to eat into your Natural Resources.

    Finally, the Wealth is independent of the number of Elites. This is truly bewildering as it is The Elites to whom The Wealth is universally allocated, and to whom all the evils of rich societies are assigned.

    Maybe there’s some typos in the equations ??

  15. Dan,

    In their favor, in the paper they do demonstrate how the equations they show (which, like I said, further incorporate other equations later down the road) are derived from predator-prey models.

    What they do not demonstrate is how what they have has any bearing to reality. Calling a variable a name does not make the variable what it is called. To say it does evinces the horrible sin of reification.

  16. You say, “You might, if you had a stake in a political ideology which insisted on the relationship”, which to me says that you have impartially evaluated the claims put forth in the paper, and also that we non-PhD types may safely ignore them because, among other reasons, the claims are just the product of people with a political/ideological agenda. Knowing nothing about you, I took about ten minutes looking around the site and following links. I was not surprised to find evidence that you approach your evaluations seemingly informed by a well developed political ideology which you no doubt believe to be entirely coherent and self-consistent. It is disappointing, but true that I search mostly in vain in pages like yours for discourse upon important issues that is really impartial.

  17. S Dana,

    Pretty good. A lot of words giving an appearance of an argument. But no argument.

    Whereas I have shown exactly why the paper is flawed, given the reasons for the this belief (and which you are free to verify).

    This post was written for folks like you: The Genetic Fallacy.


  18. Dear Dr. Briggs,

    You and I disagree about whether there is any hope for folks like S. Dana.

    You ably describe a phony “science model” built by phony “scientists”. Neither is anything close to science, as you note.

    But your readers are utterly confused. They think they can fix the model by altering the parameters. They think you are upset by the political conclusions of the paper.

    The study is just garbage through and through. It has zero to do with real science. The apocalyptic conclusions could possibly have validity despite the stench of irrationality, although apocalyptic predictions have proved NEVER to have been true in all of human history.

    Even so, I appreciate your attempts to communicate with the confused and disoriented. Futile though it might be.

  19. I make no argument and do not intend to appear to. I do make observations.

    Something I have observed is the consistency with which one can often predict predict another’s position on a very large number of issues when the position taken on one is known. The positions taken are held with confidence in the rationality of their bases. And they are often diametrically opposed to the positions taken by others who are equally confidant. I think you know what I mean.

    The very predictability makes me skeptical of accepting or rejecting a proposition, because in my mind it casts doubt on how rigorously a proponent has examined his or her world view and basic assumptions for self consistency.

    When it comes having a stake in one or another political ideology, (and allowing that to inform one’s evaluations of the evidence) I assume I’m not alone in suspecting that most of the thinking talkers out there are pots or kettles;)

  20. S Dana,

    Wow. Even more words, none of which have any bearing, none whatsoever, on the veracity of the HANDY model.

    Keep this up and somebody’s going to nominate you for office.

  21. I guess you really don’t know what I mean, after all. I am not surprised. The arrogant are seldom teachable.

    I think you will go on thinking within your straight jacket of a box. But consider this: the box you think within and probably can’t imagine venturing outside of is mirrored on the inside, severely distorting your view, making you think there is no reason or reasoning outside of it.

    Pearls before swine.

  22. S Dana,

    “The arrogant are seldom teachable.” Amen to that.

    I wrote a post critiquing HANDY, about which apparently you have nothing to contribute. Except to speculate, uselessly, on the motives I had writing it.

    Do you, in fact, have any answers to my critique of the model? If not, then say so. If you do, then give them.

    And do read the post on the genetic fallacy, a fallacy to which you seem committed.

  23. Briggs,

    I wrote a reply critiquing you for insinuating the authors assumptions are politically motivated. I pointed out how easy it is to come to the same conclusion about your critique of the paper. Your bringing politics up in your post underscores that conclusion.

    You don’t know where I stand on the conclusions of the authors, and have uselessly assumed what you do not know in order to attribute a logical fallacy to my reasoning, a knee-jerk reaction to someone who doesn’t appear to agree with you. So typical. So childish.

    The people in the camp of the authors and people in your camp have so, so much more in common than you probably would like to believe.

    So it is you I critique and your useless speculations of where I stand. I’m imagine your thinking went something like this…”no-one who understands this “study” to be the rubbish it is would possibly say anything less than complimentary about my post…therefore he doesn’t agree with my critique…therefore his thinking is, somehow, logically flawed! He cant possibly question the validity of my most basic presuppositions without being irrational!”

    You are all so alike, pointing fingers, utterly, unthinkingly convinced of you rightness, smirking at the other side’s incoherence and fallacious reasoning.

    No, now that you mention it, I have no answers to your critique of the paper. And you don’t seem to be prepared, or able, to take this to a higher level, a bigger picture.

    I will just keep looking for someone who can. Pity. I had some hope for you. Good day.

  24. S Dana,

    So you have nothing to offer on HANDY. Took a long time to get there.

    Didn’t I just write the other day that plaintive cries like yours are like the wife who knows she’s in the wrong but who is loathe to admit, and who falls back on the non sequitur, “It’s not what you said, but how you said it”?


    And you make two other mistakes.

    First, your assumption that my beliefs led to my conclusions. This is the genetic fallacy (the article which you’re still invited to read). When in fact, it was my conclusions (on works like this) that led to my beliefs.

    Second, you yourself may be led by your beliefs, stuck defending indefensible mathematics because you delight in the conclusions of that math. This is not unlikely given you cannot offer any cogent observations on the model. The same doesn’t apply to me because I prove the model’s faults. Therefore whether or not I hate communism is irrelevant.

    So I ask you to have another look.

  25. A ha! Even newer research PROVES that societies collapse not because of inequality, but because of their insufficient support for PhD students! It has equations and a computer model, so it must be true:


    There may also be a deeper lesson somewhere there. Perhaps.

    BTW, excellent – and exceedingly funny – write-up about this storm in a teacup. Many, many thanks.

  26. Briggs,

    Sorry, I can’t resist. How, exactly, do you think I know I am “in the wrong”? How are my “plaintive cries” like a wife who “knows” she is in the wrong? While you are at it, do you mean to say that the mode of delivery of information is not liable to scrutiny or evaluation? Just wondering if maybe you are confusing your analogies:)

  27. Communism? Hmmm, so you believe this paper espouses Communism, like Stalinism? Mass murder, extermination of the religious, burning of Bibles, Secret Police etc.- That kind of Communism? That seeming admission says a lot. And, as I have indicated, really quite predictable.

    Oh, please READ what I wrote. You still don’t know my position on the authors claims. I have already read plenty of reviews of the paper by informed and respected scientists and commentators. Your point of view seems to be in the minority, for now.

    Please don’t worry, I won’t let your vitriol, and your predictability cloud my judgement as to whether you critique is entirely valid or entirely invalid or somewhere in between. I expect to read refutations of your critique shortly. And I will continue to consider all I have read.

    But this is becoming a waste of time, especially when you insist on not carefully reading what I say, leading you to uselessly speculate on where I am coming from. So I can’t engage you any more.

    I know for a fact that you and I have many positions in common, and I bet that surprises you very much.

    Be well. Good-bye.

  28. S. Dana,

    Communism \Com”mu*nism\, n. [F. communisme, fr. commun common.] A scheme of equalizing the social conditions of life; specifically, a scheme which contemplates the abolition of inequalities in the possession of property, as by distributing all wealth equally to all, or by holding all wealth in common for the equal use and advantage of all. [1913 Webster]

  29. These modelers paint only a primitive bimodal 19th century society of upper class and lower class (“have-lots” and “have-nots”). In the 20th century we witnessed a rapid development of the middle class (“have-enoughs”). The wealth distribution became log-normal. Communism failed because the have-nots became richer in the west, and stayed poor in the east. Russia is heading the wrong way because a new upper class elite was created after the fall of the iron curtain.

  30. “But this is becoming a waste of time, especially when you insist on not carefully reading what I say, leading you to uselessly speculate on where I am coming from. So I can’t engage you any more.”


  31. “I have already read plenty of reviews of the paper by informed and respected scientists and commentators.”

    I call BS, Mr. Troll. You haven’t read one single review by any “informed and respected scientist.” You are a liar.

    Your appeal to authority is not only illogical, it’s a lie. Liar, liar.

    One thing science is supposed to have going for it is the truth or some approximation thereof. But you shun the truth and prefer lies to make your lying point.

    Briggs was right; you must be a politician Mr. Troll.

  32. Some one named Dana wrote, “When it comes having a stake in one or another political ideology, (and allowing that to inform one’s evaluations of the evidence) I assume I’m not alone in suspecting that most of the thinking talkers out there are pots or kettles;….” Given his individual’s number of words now evidencing loyalty to a political ideology, it seems Dana is a potty kettle or perhaps smoking some kettled pot. One great problem for all ideologies is that as hard science points ever more clearly to certain systems having their limits, some ideologies squeal like stuck pigs. Best regards for some insightful science-oriented blogging.

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